Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Memories of Mount Athos

As I prepare to return to Austria after 3-1/2 months in Greece, key impressions of my stay here come to mind. Right near the top would by my visit to the Mount Athos peninsula about a month ago; my third visit to the peninsula. Below are some impressions.

Costas (from Athens) and I are sitting in a cave at the boat landing site of Skiti Kafsokalivion watching the stormy rain pouring down, the huge waves braking at the dock and hoping that a boat will come to rescue us. This is the southernmost point of the peninsula; sort of the end of the world. It is my second day on Athos. I had planned to spend four days. Right now, in the middle of the storm, I just want to see a boat come around the cape and pick us up and take us back to Ouranoupolis.

24 hours earlier, things had been quite fine. I had arrived at Skiti Ag. Annas, where I had been before, and the plan was to walk to Kafsokalivion on day 1; from there to Prodromou on day 2; and from there to Megisti Lavra on day 3. From Lavra, I would take the bus back to Dafni to catch the ferry boat back to Ouranopoulis.

A minor problem: I had only checked the horizontal distances of the path. I should have checked the altitude changes as well! By the time I had made it to Kafsokalivion (first 800 meters up and then 800 meters down!), I was exhausted. Then the rain storm began. Then the electricity at the church where Costas and I stayed went out. No way to charge a mobile phone. No way to communicate outside. No way to read anything. No way to talk because there was no talking at the church. No way to consider climbing back 800 meters in altitude during a rain storm. In short: trapped at the end of the world with the only hope that a rescue boat would come.

Costas and I are just about to give up when a miracle seems to unfold. Clap, clap, clap. We hear approaching sounds. Suddenly, a young man appears with four mules in tow. It is Elias and he is Albanian. He is here to transport materials from the boat to the church. Elias doesn't think the boat will come but he is here anyway. 

Elias comes across as a smart cookie; in fact, a bit precocious. While Costas and I are ill equipped for the rough weather, Elias has a heavy (and expensive!) raincoat and big rubber boots. No way that he is going to get wet! I strike up a conversation with Elias. Before long, I have the strong feeling that he has classified us as 'dumb tourists'. I am sort of impressed by his natural, cocky self-confidence. Costas, a rather cultured Greek, tells me that the Albanian is just silly. He has no culture. Yeah, I tell Costas, but he looks like a survivor...

Elias has decided that no boat will come and sets out to return to the church 300 meters up the mountain. I ask him whether I could ride on one of his mules and he says yes - for 10 Euros. And, he adds, another 5 Euros for my rucksack. I tell him that this is very expensive and he tells me that it is not. 'What's 10 Euros? Just a couple of packs of cigarettes', Elias explains to me. I tell him that it is a question of having 10 Euros or not having them. Elias is not impressed. 

I tell Elias that I will pay him 10 Euros but carry the rucksack on my back. He says that this will create balancing problems for me. I remain stubborn (because I don't want Elias to literally take me for a ride) and keep the rucksack on my back. And for the next half hour, I learn everything about balancing problems when riding a mule with a rucksack on one's back...

By the time we got back to the church, it seemed that Elias, Costas and I had become rather good partners. Not friends, because Costas didn't think that Elias had culture. And Elias probably thought that both of us were rather dumb (or cultured, for that matter). But we were in conversation. Elias told us that he had been working in several European countries. The last ones were Switzerland and France. He had made good money wherever he was. Now he would stay in Kafsokalivion until next summer. The monks gave him shelter and food in exchange for work he did, and on the side he could make money with his mule business. In the summer he would go back to Albania where the beaches are wonderful and the girls are beautiful. After all, he would have to spend all the money he earned.

I finally agreed to pay Elias 25 Euros to take me up to the top of the path the next morning, and I gave him the money upfront. Costas said he would walk because he didn't want to be taken for a ride by an uncultured Albanian.

The next morning, Costas and I wanted Elias to put our rucksacks on the mule. Elias said that this would be another 15 Euros. Grudingly, we agreed to pay him, and we would pay him once we reached the top. Good thing we did because the path was narrow and the cliffs were steep. One small imbalancing with my rucksack and I might have gone down the cliff. 

As we chatted along the way, Elias told me that he could also take me up all the way to the top of Mount Athos. 100 Euros would be the price. I laughed and suggested that he was crazy.

At the top, Costas pulled out 7,50 Euros for his rucksack. I had no coins and only 50 Euro bills. Elias had no change. BUT: I happened to have a 10 Swiss Franc bill which I gave Elias in lieu of 10 Euros. And then, in the middle of nowhere, one-third up Mount Athos, the uncultured young Albanian said to me:

"Ten Swiss Francs are only 8 Euros at current exchange rates".

Little had I known that the young, uncultured Albanian was also a foreign exchange expert. Neither had the cultured Costas known that 10 Swiss Francs were worth only 8 Euros...

As Costas and I continued our walk back to Ag. Annas, I pondered the idea of ever being at the top of Mount Athos, albeit at the cost of 100 Euros. 

By the time we were on the boat back to Ouranopoulis, I felt rather certain that, possibly next year, I would take up Elias on his offer to take me up to Mount Athos. What the heck! He may be taking me for a ride but what an unforgettable ride it would be!


  1. "He may be taking me for a ride but what an unforgettable ride it would be!"

    I think you got your money's worth, Klaus!

    What a lovely example of genuine entrepreneurial spirit. I don't give a whistle for culture; it's a nice-to-have. My preference is for the flash of light in Elias' eyes - it means he'll do culture in his own way and keep it alive by doing so. I truly wish there were more like him.

  2. 15 € for 300 meters? And total 40 €? This is not a bussiness spirit but a "bite". Or "inflated prices" for nothing. Many people won't ask you anythink.
    However herr Klaus if Ilias didn't ask you at all money and suggested to visit top of Mount Athos would you give him let say 40€ for being conscientious (filotimos) and helpful?


    1. Aeeee, you think like a cultured person. Elias is a businessman, and a clever one at that!

    2. Mule riding in Athos is an illiquid market. Bet the views were priceless. Lucky you!